Aside from grants and loans, private scholarships are some of the best ways to help fund your college education. There are thousands of scholarships out there for high school seniors, all with different eligibility requirements, deadlines, and award amounts, so it's definitely worth your time to do some research.
Senior year is prime crunch time when it comes to your college scholarship search. If you're just starting the search process and need a little help getting off on the right foot, you've come to the right place. I've compiled a list of some of the best college scholarships for high school seniors based on availability and award amounts. These scholarships are generally flexible (so you'll be able to use them at any accredited college you attend), and they also don't have any geographical restrictions (so you're eligible to apply no matter where you live in the US).
The list is broken down into four sub-lists: scholarship competitions, merit-based scholarships, need-based scholarships, and specialty awards. Don't forget to check out the end of the article for strategies on getting the most scholarship money possible!
The following scholarships are awarded based on performance in some sort of contest. These types of scholarships can be pretty intensive, so give yourself extra time to effectively prepare if you plan on pursuing one of them.
All scholarships are competitions—to win the following scholarships, though, you'll have to go head-to-head with other students.
Students compete for this award by writing and recording an audio essay on a patriotic theme. The theme for the 2020-21 contest is "Is The Country the Founders Envisioned?". The first-place winner gets a grand prize of $30,000 and an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, DC. The program gives out a total of $1.9 million in awards and incentives each year.
- Eligibility: Students in grades 9-12
- Deadline: October 31, 2020
Students compete for this award by writing an essay on one of three topics related to Ayn Rand's book The Fountainhead. The first-place winner will receive a grand prize of $10,000. Runners-up also receive awards. Each year, a total of $22,500 is given out in prize money.
- Eligibility: Students in grades 11-12
- Deadline: Likely late May, 2021
Students compete for this award by writing an essay on one of three topics related to Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged. The first-place winner will receive a $25,000 prize. Runners-up also win prizes, and a whopping $40,000 in scholarship money is awarded annually.
- Eligibility: High school seniors, college students, and graduate students
- Deadline: September 21, 2020
Are you a good public speaker, or do you just want an excuse to hone your public-speaking skills? Then this competition would be a good fit for you. Students compete for this award by preparing and performing an eight- to 10-minute oration on some aspect of the US Constitution, as well as giving a three- to five-minute speech on an assigned topic. You can view this year's topics here.
The first-place winner receives $25,000, second place receives $22,500, and third place receives $20,000. There are also smaller awards for state winners. More than $203,500 in prize money is given out annually.
- Eligibility: US high school students under 20 years of age
- Deadline: Varies by state, as contests are arranged by local American Legion departments
This scholarship is pretty unique—and it's great for students with some untapped artistic talents! Students compete for this award by submitting a photo, piece of artwork, or computer graphic to be used on the front of a greeting card. The winner will receive $10,000, and the winner's school will also get $1,000.
- Eligibility: High school and college students aged 14 or older
- Deadline: March 9, 2021
To win these scholarships, you have to show that you're tough—or at least that your brain is tough.
Scholarships Based on Academic Strength
The following scholarships are generally awarded based on students' academic performance in conjunction with a few other factors, such as leadership skills and commitment to community service. As a result, the most competitive applicants will be dedicated, high-achieving students who are also invested in their communities.
Coca-Cola Scholars are judged primarily on their academic performance, extracurricular activities, leadership experience, and community service. This scholarship program is fairly big: 150 awards of $20,000 each are given out every year. You can learn more about the Coca-Cola Scholarship by reading our guide to winning the award.
- Eligibility: US high school seniors; can't be children or grandchildren of Coca-Cola employees (current and former)
- Deadline: October 31 2020
Applicants for this scholarship are judged on their GPA, work experience, extracurricular activities, and community service. Award amounts range from those as small as $1,000 to those as large as $50,000.
- Eligibility: Employees and their spouses/partners/children, US high school seniors
- Deadline: Likely mid-December 2020
For these, award eligibility requirements will vary based on your local Ronald McDonald House Charity chapter. For example, some have ethnic eligibility requirements. Deadlines and award amounts will also vary by location, but some of the bigger national awards can be as large as $100,000! Check out our how-to guide to learn more about getting an RMHC scholarship.
- Eligibility: High school seniors, but other requirements may apply depending on scholarship
- Deadline: Varies depending on scholarship, but usually January
If your family income isn't enough to cover college expenses, need-based scholarships would be a great option for you.
Scholarships Based on Financial Need
The following scholarships take financial need into account when choosing award recipients. For many of these programs, though, financial need is just one of many criteria considered. In other words, strong applicants will also be successful students, leaders, or community activists. For most of these applications, you'll likely have to submit documentation about your family income.
This generous need-based scholarship is geared toward students who have faced and overcome great obstacles. To be considered eligible, your gross adjusted family income must be at or below $55,000. At the national level, there are 106 $25,000 awards; at the state level, there are scholarships of $10,000 each for all 50 states (plus the District of Columbia).
This one scholarship application will get you considered for many other national, state, and specialized scholarships, which means less work for you and more opportunities for scholarship funding!
- Eligibility: US high school seniors with a GPA of 2.0 or above who plan on getting a bachelor's degree
- Deadline: October 25, 2020
Applicants to this need-based scholarship are judged on their leadership skills and commitment to community service. To be considered eligible, you must identify as a minority student. As many as 60 new scholarships are awarded annually. The scholarships are four-year awards, and recipients can receive as much as $30,000 over four years.
- Eligibility: US minority high school seniors with a minimum SAT of 1000/ACT of 21 who plan on getting a bachelor's degree in the US
- Deadline: Likely early February, 2021
This need-based scholarship is pretty straightforward: it's awarded to one student each year who demonstrates not only financial need but also impressive academic performance and leadership ability. The annual award winner receives $5,000 per semester of college. Winners may reapply for the prize every year.
- Eligibility: High school seniors with high GPAs and SAT/ACT scores and financial need who plan to attend a four-year college
- Deadline: March 1, 2021 (note that applications must be submitted via mail)
In addition to providing funding for college, this scholarship program offers personal advising on selecting a college, navigating the financial aid process, and transitioning from high school to college. Applicants are judged on academic ability and achievement, financial need, persistence, desire to help others, and leadership skills. Awards are given to students each year and can be as high as $40,000 per academic year. In 2019, 50 students were accepted into the program.
- Eligibility: High school seniors with financial need who plan to attend a four-year college
- Deadline: October 30, 2020
Applicants to this need-based scholarship are judged on their scholarship and leadership abilities. Each year, 500 scholarships are given out across the country, with award amounts (over four years) ranging from $4,000 to $50,000. Applications must be submitted to the Elk Lodge closest to your home address, so make sure to research the Elk Lodges in your area before you apply.
- Eligibility: US high school seniors who plan to attend a four-year US college
- Deadline: November 15 2020
The Gates Scholarship aims to help scholastically outstanding minority high school seniors reach their full potential. Every year, 300 students receive a scholarship covering the full cost of attendance (including tuition, fees, room, board, books, and transportation) that is not already covered by other financial aid and expected family contribution. Read more about the Gates Scholarship and how to win it in our complete guide.
- Eligibility: US minority high school seniors who are Pell-eligible (Pelligible?), have a minimum 3.3/4.0 GPA, and plan to attend a four-year US college
- Deadline: September 15, 2020
This program, which was created by the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), aims to offer financial assistance to high-achieving African-American high school and college students majoring in STEM. Each year, 100 winners are selected to receive a scholarship of either $2,500 (for freshmen and sophomores in college) or $5,000 (for juniors and seniors). Winners can also earn a $5,000 stipend to use toward a STEM-related research project or internship.
- Eligibility: African-American high school seniors or college students majoring in a STEM field
- Deadline: Likely mid-March, 2021
These next scholarships are unique—just like every student applicant!
The following scholarship programs are national awards that target students who have specific or unique interests or achievements. Whether you're the next president of the SPCA or even the USA, you should be able to find a specialty scholarship that's perfect for you!
This program offers more than just a scholarship—if you're selected as a winner, you'll become a part of a pretty unique internship program. Interns work at the CIA during summer breaks and get both an annual salary (with benefits) and an annual scholarship award of up to $18,000. You must demonstrate financial need to qualify. Income eligibility ceilings are $90,000 per family.
- Eligibility: US high school seniors
- Deadline: Likely mid-June, 2021
Are you a proud vegetarian? This might seem like a niche award, but the scholarship is very real! Applicants are judged on their "compassion, courage, and a strong commitment to promoting a peaceful world through a vegetarian diet/lifestyle." If you've promoted vegetarianism at school or in your community, you'll likely be a great candidate for this scholarship. The first-place winner will receive $10,000, and two runners-up will each receive $5,000.
- Eligibility: High school seniors
- Deadline: February 20, 2021
Do you have an extraordinary achievement that you're particularly proud of? This scholarship is for students who have completed an impressive piece of work in the fields of science, technology, engineering, math, literature, music, or philosophy. Scholarship requirements differ based on the type of project, with awards ranging from $10,000 to $50,000.
- Eligibility: US citizens or permanent residents 18 years of age and under
- Deadline: February 10, 2021
The Equitable Excellence scholarship (formerly the AXA Achievement scholarship) targets students who have empowered society through achievements that mitigate risk. This idea can be interpreted pretty broadly, so spend some time figuring out what risk means to you and whether you've participated in making the world a safer place through any of your activities.
In 2020, hundreds of students representing all 50 states; Washington, DC; and Puerto Rico received one-time scholarships of $2,500, $10,000, or $25,000.
- Eligibility: US high school seniors
- Deadline: Likely late 2020
If you're passionate about public service, this is the scholarship for you. The Senate Youth Program targets students who participate in their high school student government and plan to study history or political science in college. Applicants are judged on their leadership skills, academic performance, community involvement, and extracurricular activities. Each winner will receive a $10,000 award in addition to an all-expenses-paid educational week in Washington, DC.
- Eligibility: High school juniors and seniors
- Deadline: ON HOLD for this year due to COVID-19; updates will be posted here (normally varies depending on state, but usually October)
Higher education costs in the United States have been skyrocketing for the last 20 years, but it's still possible to get a great education without breaking the bank. Learn how you can maximize the quality of your college education while minimizing costs with our six-hour online course.
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Making the Most of Your Scholarship Applications: 3 Key Tips
If you're going to go through all the work of submitting a scholarship application, then you want to make sure you have an excellent shot at winning awards. The following three tips will help you submit the greatest number of successful scholarship applications possible.
#1: Do Your Own Research
As you've probably noticed, many of the above scholarships are fairly generous national awards that'll likely be quite competitive. Unfortunately, you could be a strong applicant for many of these scholarships and still not win a big award. So what's a student to do?
The reality is that there are countless scholarship programs out there that might be really good fits for your interests, location, background, identity, etc. The more niche a scholarship program is, the better chances you'll have of winning an award (assuming you're qualified for it). So do some research on scholarships programs that operate in your area or are offered to students with your particular interests, experiences, skills, or passions.
The Ronald McDonald House Charities scholarships are a good place to start. You can also pay a visit to your guidance counselor who should have more information on local scholarships.
In addition, you could branch out on your own by searching online for scholarships in your area. If you have a particular talent, skill, or interest, look for scholarships that are offered to students based on those criteria.
#2: Apply Broadly
Applying for scholarships—like applying to colleges—is, in part, a numbers game. You wouldn't apply to just one school if you wanted to optimize your chances of getting into a great college, would you?
Many scholarship applications ask similar questions and require similar information, so if you apply to one program, you might as well apply to a bunch. It's free to apply for most scholarships anyway—all it takes is a few hours of your time.
Finally, take advantage of applications that submit you for consideration for many scholarship awards, such as the Horatio Alger Scholarship mentioned above.
#3: Make Note of Deadlines
Scholarship applications are all over the place—there's no defined "scholarship season" for submission deadlines, but many are due before college application deadlines. As such, it's better to start your scholarship search sooner rather than later so you don't miss out on any great opportunities.
The summer before your senior year is a good time to start making note of programs you're interested in. Keep track of application deadlines by maintaining a spreadsheet that you update regularly. This is especially helpful if applications require you to ask for letters of recommendation; you can make sure to give teachers and mentors plenty of advance notice to write you a letter.
Want to get a head start on scoping out scholarships? Then check out our comprehensive guides to winning some of the most competitive national scholarships available, including the Gates Scholarship, the Coca-Cola Scholarship, the Walmart Scholarships, and the McDonald's Scholarships.
Looking for scholarships with low-hassle applications? Our article on the easiest scholarships to apply for will give you a great starting list.
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Francesca graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and scored in the 99th percentile on the SATs. She's worked with many students on SAT prep and college counseling, and loves helping students capitalize on their strengths.